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Our Failure to Protect: Political commitment is vital to prevent and respond to young newcomers going missing in Europe*

It is 2015, and Europol have sent a shockwave through Europe with news that, according to national reports, at least 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children have gone missing; today, we know that this was only the tip of the iceberg. Between 2014 and 2017, at least 30,000 young newcomers, escaping violence or poverty in their home countries, disappeared on European soil (Source: European Migration Network). Children going missing in migration risk facing exploitation, violence, starvation, homelessness and physical and mental health problems. Our failure to protect them from such risks is a violation of their fundamental rights.

About half of these children go missing from asylum centres or shelters within two days of their arrival. Young newcomers feel compelled to leave because reception centre conditions are poor and inappropriate for children, and they hope to find happier, safer housing elsewhere. Sometimes children leave centres because they become discouraged by the length and complexity of asylum or family reunification procedures, or because they fear being sent home or back to the EU country where they first arrived. (Source: Missing Children Europe and University of Portsmouth SUMMIT study 2016).

In many cases, they are forced to leave because they are, or become, victims of trafficking, including labour and sexual exploitation, forced begging and drug smuggling. Europol has intelligence that human traffickers are increasingly targeting children in migration, particularly when unaccompanied. Young newcomers lack trustworthy information and are subject to disinformation on their rights and options.

Despite the enormous risks to which unaccompanied migrant children are exposed, disappearances are usually underreported. The majority of EU countries do not have legal or procedural regulations on investigations into the disappearances of migrant children, and some have a fixed no-action period before any activity on the case is considered. (Source: Missing children in the European Union Mapping, Data Collection and Statistics, 2013).

This is one of the reasons why children in migration made up only 4.1% of the cases reported to Missing Children Europe’s member network of 116,000 hotlines in 2018 (Figures and Trends from hotlines for missing children, 2018). That said, young newcomers make up more than 25% of the cross-border missing cases. Lack of co-ordination between services at the national level, as well as across borders is another reason why children disappear. In many cases, international tools for tracing missing children, such as our hotline network and the SIS or Interpol Yellow notices, are not being tapped into for this specific group. As a society, we accept that these children are treated with lower priority because they are foreigners. If they were European, it’s doubtful we would accept situations like these.

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AMINA programme aims to improve responses across borders and prevention. With the Miniila app we are building a mobile application to give young newcomers access to child friendly, up to date and accessible information on their rights, procedures and the support available wherever they are. This way, rather than being forced to trust those profiting from their vulnerability, they are empowered to take safer decisions. Our forthcoming Interact handbook and training provides actors working with children with guidelines to better respond to the protection needs of children in migration, and work together across borders on the basis of trialled and tested procedures. Tiny and Apollo are two fictional characters who represent young newcomers in our newly launched communications campaign to create more positive discourse around children in migration and enhance integration.

 

*excerpts from OECD Forum Network

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